Making the switch: How to attract top candidates to the public sector
With a job market that’s favouring employers, filling high level positions isn’t a big concern for many public sector agencies right now. But snaring the right person for the job is the greatest challenge.

The end of the mining boom and public service job cuts have meant a large number of highly qualified candidates are looking for work, particularly in the mining-dependant states of Western Australia and Queensland.

“Honestly it’s embarrassing – the quality of some of the applicants we’ve seen has been unbelievably high,” says Joe Radici, a WA-based HR consultant at Dillinger Group Development.

He was stunned to be “inundated” with applications from candidates earning around $400,000 for two $190,000 roles in one public sector organisation last year.

“They were mainly in the resources sector and obviously decided it wasn’t looking very secure where they were,” he says.

But this embarrassment of riches may not necessarily lead to the best candidate.

Highly-qualified candidates with this background are sometimes not the right fit for the public sector, says Anne-Marie Carroll, Managing Director of Merit Solutions, based in Queensland where top public sector jobs are also attracting large numbers of high-level refugees from the resources industry.

“They’re not necessarily well-aligned to public sector skill sets, except in very specific agencies,” she says.

Let’s talk about money

The secret to enticing the best of corporate talent to the public sector may be about tackling some of the perceived negatives including lower salaries and myths about slow-paced bureaucracies.

To start with, lower remuneration packages are not always the end of the story, says Carroll.

“The people who work best in government are those for whom remuneration isn’t a major factor. They’re coming in because of the values alignment, because they think they can make a difference in a less commercial way.

The package can’t be too low though. “It has to be close enough; not many people will take a third of what they were getting before or even a half; they might take two-thirds,” she says.

Spelling out the real value of the package is also important, says Gary Champion, from Canberra-based HBA Consulting. “The total remuneration and package of terms and conditions isn’t well understood. I’d be surprised if a senior executive properly compared the package with their current one and calculated it out as an hourly rate, to try to get like with like,” he says.

There are other important opportunities and benefits of working in the public sector that ought to be highlighted in the recruiting process, says Champion.

“For example, senior executive roles get access to key decision makers who move in and out of the political forum and often end up in influential private sector roles. I don’t think people take that into account as much as they should,” he says.

If the culture cap fits…

Managing candidates’ expectations about the culture of the organisation is important to retain those making the switch between sectors, says Carroll.

“People who come in expecting really fast decision making do ultimately get frustrated. I don’t see many people with that sort of mindset succeed in the long-term.”

Carroll believes the best type of private sector employee to make it in the public sector has experience in a large corporate. “They’re used to policies and processes. That’s a more successful transition, from big corporations rather than small entrepreneurial organisations.”

But for public sector agencies looking for the dynamism and innovation of an entrepreneur, Carroll recommends going the extra mile with mentoring and helping them to integrate.

It may also mean being realistic about how long they might stay. “If this person is only here for 18 months, is that okay? How can we make that most satisfying 18 months possible for all parties? There’s a bit of reality checking on both sides there,” she says.

Tidy up your paperwork

One way to get a big fish candidate on the hook and keep them there is to improve and streamline the recruitment process.

“Make sure you have a coordinated process where every step is mapped out and booked in people’s diaries so you don’t have a situation where you’ve got all these people who’ve expressed interest in a position then suddenly a key manager who’ll be involved in the process is pulled off line or goes on holidays,” Carroll says.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating when you’ve got people interested and then it just takes forever. And in the meantime, other organisations are making offers."

In the Australian Public Service, the recruitment process hasn’t really changed since merit decision making was first introduced, says Champion.

One of the big issues he sees is the lack of difference between recruiting for very senior roles and more junior positions.

“Senior people are time poor so the process has to be reasonably easy and simple. They have to see clear relevance in everything they provide in terms of how it might contribute to the decision-making process,” says Champion.

In fact, Champion believes a more strategic approach to the entire selection process is needed to really understand the purpose and application of each stage. “There’s not a lot of evidence of good workforce planning, which then flows into recruitment,” he says.

Carroll agrees, suggesting that agencies consider their workforce needs at senior levels for say, 12 months ahead. Then advertise a group of jobs.

Being flexible can also pay off, she says. “The departments that are better at senior executive recruitment are the ones that are prepared to say: ‘This person isn’t right for this job but we really think they could contribute in another role.  If possible, make another appointment or at least positively encourage them to apply for other jobs in the agency.”

Want to learn more about best-practice recruitment for the public sector? Find out how effective employer branding strategies can help government organisations attract top candidates.